- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

More than 2,000 children and young teens who participated in federally funded abstinence-education programs were no more likely to abstain from sex than schoolmates who didn’t receive the information, according to a government report released yesterday.

In all four test sites, youths in the abstinence-education program and youths who received regular school services were not different in their sexual behavior four to six years later.

Fifty-five percent had been abstinent in the past year and 49 percent were still virgins, said the final report on the Title V abstinence-education grant program, which was conducted by researchers with Mathematica Policy Research Inc. and issued by Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

The program youth and control group youth also didn’t differ on the average age — 14 years, 9 months — at which they had sex for the first time, or in the number of sexual partners they had once they became sexually active — about 16 percent had one partner, 11 percent had two partners and 25 percent had three or more sex partners.

The research offers important lessons for future abstinence programming, said Harry Wilson, commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at HHS Administration for Children and Families. “This report confirms what those of us who have experience working with youth already know: Interventions are not like vaccines; you can’t expect a little dose in middle school to be protective through high school if abstinence education ends before the most important years.”

The long-awaited evaluation touched off a flurry of reactions.

“The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has long cautioned that the jury is out on the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs,” said Sarah Brown, executive director of the campaign. “The jury has now returned with the verdict on the effectiveness of four carefully selected, well-evaluated abstinence-only programs and the news is not good.”

William Smith, of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said the report “should serve as the final verdict on the failure of the abstinence-only industry in this country.”

“After 10 years and $1.5 billion in public funds, these failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs will go down as an ideological boondoggle of historic proportions,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a group that promotes responsible sexual behavior.

Abstinence supporters, however, said the report was not a sweeping indictment of abstinence programs.

“Regrettably, the study shows that the four programs were not successful in reducing teen sexual activity,” Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector said. “Fortunately, there are 15 other studies … showing that abstinence programs are effective in reducing youth sexual activity.”

A federal conference in March in Baltimore highlighted several studies that show abstinence education delays sex and even encourages sexually active youth to become celibate again, said Valerie Huber, executive director of the new National Abstinence Education Association.

Abstinence education should be an issue on Capitol Hill soon: The $50-million-a-year Title V abstinence-grant program, which was created in the 1996 welfare reform law, expires June 30 unless it is renewed. Sex education advocates also are expecting House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, to hold hearings on abstinence programs, which currently receive about $176 million a year in federal funds.

The Mathematica study involved 2,057 children, including 1,209 who participated in “Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy” in Milwaukee; “ReCapturing the Vision” in Miami; “Teens in Control” in Clarksdale, Miss.; and “My Choice, My Future” in Powhatan, Va. Students were typically 11 or 12 years old when they started the programs; follow-up surveys were conducted five years later.

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